RECENTLY, a scientific study conducted by Malaysian scientists funded by Nestle became the premise used by three Western journalists to attack the reputation of Dr Tee E Siong and the Nutrition Society of Malaysia in The New York Times. Reputation is everything for scientists – once it is debased, the entire scientific career could be harmed. Hence, it is imperative for scientists in Malaysia and the Health Ministry to rise up to defend the reputation of Dr Tee, the society’s president. We should not allow scientific research in Malaysia to be defamed by Western journalists who lack critical thinking and are poorly trained in science and the philosophy of science.
The article published in New York Times on Dec 23 argued that the scientific study conducted by Dr Tee and its team was tainted due to them receiving funding from Nestle. The entire article was based on a flimsy argument of corporate influence tainting science without any solid refutation to the soundness of the scientific study itself. The Western journalists have to resort to a “Harvard-trained” expert and a Harvard professor to affirm and prolong their attack.
The journalists citing critics argued that corporate funding “subverts science”. Anyone who is in science would find this statement to be extremely shallow and lack the complete understanding about how science is funded. After all, science is dependent on funding received from various interest groups, including governments, military-industrial complex, foundations, private citizens and corporate sectors.
Why single out corporate funders alone when scientists work to fulfil the scientific agendas set by governments and foundations who sift and winnow what studies to fund? Are we going to attack the reputation of Western scientists who receive funding from their governments and foundations too?
Additionally, plenty of studies producing no significant results never made it to the journals. So, we never have a complete scientific picture for the hypotheses of interest. Why then turn the corporate funders to be personae non gratae of science when science is quite an expert in destroying itself from within?
As a fellow scientist, I read the scientific study published by Dr Tee carefully to understand the attack on him. I fully understood the problem statement of the study which was to understand the effects of malted beverage on kids. I examined the method used to gather the data, analysed the data analyses conducted, examined the results obtained and perused the discussion section and found the study to be extremely sound.
The study also went the extra length to acknowledge its limitation and indicated clearly in the acknowledgment section and in its footnote that it was funded by Nestle. All this was clearly written by the scientists of the study. Nothing was hidden. This study, too, was reviewed by other scientists before being published. So, nothing is inappropriate about the study itself. It is a valid and important scientific study that added an important contribution to the ongoing research about food intake and obesity.
However, the Western journalists attacked the study by citing a Harvard professor who said the study was “wildly overstated”. This is an extremely ironic and clumsy conclusion as the scientists in the study provided one solid paragraph about the limitation of the study. They did not overstate anything; they only projected their data.
The journalists also cited a “Harvard-trained” scientist in Malaysia who disagreed with the study without providing any scientific rationales for her disagreement. If she disagreed with the study because she strongly believed that sugar caused obesity, then she was disagreeing with the study because of her personal scientific belief system. That’s not the fault of Dr Tee or his study.
Obesity is a serious issue around the globe but it is not a disease, lest the Western journalists do not understand it. While obesity increases the risk of other diseases, it is not for us to medicalise obesity. Having said that, while there is scientific movement to relate sugar with obesity, the framework of calorie in and calorie out or energy balance as advocated by Dr Tee is also championed by many scientists. One could disagree with Dr Tee’s school of thought without attacking his reputation like what these Western journalists have done.
Finally, malted beverage like Milo alone is not a sugary drink. Orange juice, apple juice, grape juice, etc, are full of sugars too. Just like malted beverage study, some studies found orange juice to be linked with obesity while others did not find that relationship. The act of attacking Dr Tee’s reputation, his scientific study and his corporate funders just because you bought into the idea that sugar caused obesity should be highly condemned. It’s time to offer an apology to Dr Tee and his fellow scientists who worked hard to produce that scientific study.
A MALAYSIAN SCIENTIST
Baltimore, United States